Space Force should look to the private sector to fill data gaps, watchdog says


The Space Force currently has blindspots in its understanding of objects in space that can potentially be resolved with the help of a growing commercial sector, a new report says.

A new Government Accountability Office report has tasked the Space Force with reforming its procurement process to leverage a growing commercial sector that can potentially aid the military branch in expanding its knowledge of objects in space.

The Space Force currently uses Department of Defense sensors that are globally positioned on Earth and in space to collect data on objects and make predictions on potential collisions, and to better understand emerging threats in the contested environment of space. 

The GAO report identified gaps in the military branch's space situational awareness, in part due to limited sensor capabilities and geographical distribution challenges, and said the Space Force lacks a plan on how to use its Unified Data Library, a cloud-based repository that consolidates government, commercial and international data to provide a comprehensive overview for situational awareness and other space operations. 

"DOD strategy emphasizes using commercial options when possible," the report said. "However, the Space Force’s evaluation and acquisition of licenses to access, use, and potentially share commercial SSA data have been limited to a few studies and training events."

Despite the Space Force deploying an initial operational version of the data library and designating the repository as its single source for managing all of its data in January 2021, GAO found that the version had not yet been integrated into the military branch's operational systems and was not used daily by staff who monitor objects in space. 

Federal agencies like NASA have also recently announced initiatives to expand their data sharing programs across the public and private sectors as part of an industry effort to expand the U.S.' situational awareness of objects in space. NASA Chief Data Officer Ron Thompson said at an event last year that his goal was to expand data sharing operations with the commercial sector and government partners, including the Space Force. 

The report urged the Space Force to establish a process to consistently identify and assess commercial SSA capabilities, and to create a plan to fully integrate the data library into its systems. 

"The rapid rise in the importance and challenges of operating in space necessitates enhancements to SSA capabilities, including consideration of commercially available data and tools," the report said. 

The Department of Defense said in response to the report that it agreed with GAO's recommendations and that the Space Force was currently collaborating with the Department of the Air Force to develop a commercial space strategy. The strategy is expected to be completed by June of this year.